A Brief History of Chestnuts and New Hope

Reader Contribution by Jonny Malks
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The indomitable chestnut.

A Glorious Staple Food

Chestnuts fall sometime between the last week of September and the first few weeks of October. They arrive during the heart of autumn in their sawtoothed green burrs to fill the season and, in many parts of the world, the year with a nourishing source of starch that is healthy for both our bodies and our land. Chestnuts have the capacity to be a staple crop, a foundational element of the American diet. They are much like corn in this way. However, there is a key difference between these two fundamental starches. Chestnuts grow on trees. While growing corn on a large scale means tilling and spraying toxic chemicals on the soil year after year, effectively eliminating any semblance of the microbial life that makes growing sustainable food possible, chestnuts are a no-till substitute that sequesters carbon and fixes topsoil. Sounds great, right? So, why don’t we see more chestnuts? Where did they all go? 

Put Down and Forgotten

The American Chestnut has been a steady food source to millions of people throughout history, a central element of the diets of nomads and settlers between present-day Maine down through present-day Mississippi for centuries. Its rot-resistant wood made top-quality lumber and its hearty nut was eaten raw, roasted, and as flour in hot-cakes and other baked goods. It is said that families would venture out into their local forests in autumn for the yearly chestnut harvest only to find mountains of fluorescent green burrs covering the ground. The nuts would be brought home by the bucketful, processed, dried, and usually ground into flour to provide a year-long staple for baking and cooking. The chestnut was one of the few crops that could be counted on year after year, a stalwart centerpiece of American cuisine. 

However, the course of American forests, food, and, indeed, history at large all changed very quickly when a strange disease was discovered on the chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo just after the turn of the century. This was the first evidence of a catastrophic disease that would alter the fate of the American food system. This chestnut blight was accidentally introduced to North America around 1904. Just months after its first recorded appearance in New York, it had spread in all compass directions. In the following years, the blight continued to raze a path of destruction up and down the coast, leaving behind carcasses covered in red fungal impressions that shattered bark and became haunting physical relics of loss on the landscape. Before the blight, the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was estimated at over three billion. After the disease spread as far north as Ontario in the 1920s, the American chestnut was effectively extinct. It is estimated that fewer than 100 of the 3 billion trees alive at the first recorded instance of Cryphonectria parasitica on the continent survived.

The Interstice

In 1945, Robert Wells and Mel Tormé penned The Christmas Song, a tune otherwise known by its most memorable lyrics, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” These words tap into an intense American nostalgia. Many of the day’s listeners could still remember a lost time from their youth when they couldn’t venture into a wooded area without tripping over chestnut burrs, when the American chestnut was one of the defining elements of their landscape, as plentiful as our modern-day oaks. 

However, as The Christmas Song aged, these rememberers died, and our tradition slipped. After all, there’s no use in a chestnut-based cuisine if a more easily-accessible staple starch can be procured cheaply in every store. Therefore, It’s no coincidence that the rise of industrially-farmed corn paralleled the fall of the chestnut. The 1% area devoted to hybrid varieties of America’s new #1 staple in 1934 rose to 78% in the 1940s and continued its accent throughout the rest of the century. In the 1950s, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, an early developer of hybrid seeds, observed that “the Corn Belt had developed into the most productive agricultural civilization the world has ever seen”. Of course, a reliance on Wallace’s hybrid seeds bred a tandem reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, leading to the state of our present agricultural system in which American farmers are forced into perpetual debt by massive agro-chemical corporations, like Bayer (the infamous acquirer of Monsanto), through constant updates on chemicals, expensive machinery, and seed patents that prevent any semblance of food sovereignty. Today, corn production levels on American farms are a significant 20% higher per acre than in the rest of the world. 

Every successive year of chemical sprays and intensive tillage further poisons the soil of its original bounty, and what seems to be the most logical thing to do if soil fertility drops? Add more chemicals. This creates a positive feedback loop that has left us with depleted agricultural land bereft of any semblance of microbial life, a glut of unhealthy and overly-processed foods that have precipitated the rise of the obesity crisis and early-onset diabetes in the U.S., and a trend among farm workers as a group that has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. After the veritable extinction of our chestnut, American corporate interests began to put corn into everything and pushed for the cultivation of this newest product of “scientific agriculture” at unprecedented rates. Of course, I’m not just talking about getting your corn-on-the cob fix at a cookout. The corn industry informs practically every food in the grocery store. If the product’s not been fed corn during its lifetime, it has been enriched or sweetened with one of corn’s many processed byproducts. In today’s globally-westernized food system, we can find corn pumped in foods like hamburger patties, french fries, fast food taco meat, chicken nuggets, soda, ketchup, peanut butter, and pudding, to name but a few. The U.S. adult obesity rate stands at 42.4 percent. Indebted farmers are dying by suicide in droves. On average, it is estimated that a typical meal in the United States travels about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate. The alliance between massive fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, and agrochemical corporations is no coincidence. They’re padding their pockets by severing our birthright as eaters and lovers, as people whose quality of growth is only as good as the quality of food that we can grow. 

Today, 90% of all chestnuts consumed in the U.S. are imported. The rest are grown chemically. When seen at all, they are perceived to be an expensive, exotic commodity, sold for exorbitant sums in boutique groceries. The failing of our collective memory is laid bare in food.

A Better Food Future

Breadtree Farms’ first full orchard planting of Chinese chestnuts in Johnsonville, NY.

I’m running through the woods with my friend, Russell. It’s a brisk fall morning in western Massachusetts. The fallen leaves rush underneath my feet in a fiery, earthen blur as I try to keep pace. On the way into this forest, I recognized oaks and blood-red sugar maples. There’s some yellowing beech and white pine here. Farther into the forest, hemlock reaches for the sky. I whisper these names to myself as we run. Russell loves trees. He teaches me how to identify them on our drives and walks. Now he stops and points to scores of odd little shoots that are growing along the path. I hadn’t noticed them. “American chestnut stump sprouts. They spring up for a time before being cut back from the blight about every four years or so.” Catching my breath, I look around. They’re everywhere. They’re here. 

The next day Russell’s longtime family friend and neighbor, Maurice, brings a small twig by the house. There’s a minuscule, brown burr attached. “I haven’t seen one of these things fruit in ages,” he tells Russell with a smile. “I guess we got lucky this year.” 

The American Chestnut Foundation represents the concerted effort of biologists, conservationists, and historians to restore the tree to our forests using genetic hybrids that include one-sixteenth genes from blight-resistant Asian trees. However, while this is one of the worthiest causes around, it is not a commercially-viable endeavor to bring chestnuts back into our mainstream food system. 

Enter Breatree Farms. Russell, and a handful of growers like him around the U.S., plan to use open-pollinated chinese chestnuts to put chestnuts back on our tables. We’re in the middle of planting two-hundred more saplings at his orchard in Johnsonville, NY. At the end of a long day of digging, we trudge up a hill to catch that evening’s sunset over the hazy, rolling hills that bound the valley. Russell’s exhale shimmers over his orange cap and mud-stained overalls. “Almost 900 individuals and counting.” On the drive home, he tells me that he’s already getting nostalgic for memories that haven’t happened yet. He and his wife, Kate, are expecting their first child around Christmas. A grocery store in Boston has already put in a standing order for a thousand pounds. These trees won’t produce for a few years, and, even when they do, there will never be enough. But these seeds of change are hardy. They’ll multiply. Our ancestors will smile. 

Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him onFacebookand read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.

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